Palestinian journalist tries to keep his balance
By Alexis Schulz
Abdullah H. Erakat, ’98, has one of the toughest jobs in journalism. While trying to produce unbiased coverage — something rarely seen in the Middle East — he sometimes has to dodge bullets, and once he was strip-searched with 10 of his colleagues in freezing weather.
Today, Erakat reports for The Media Line, an agency that aims for balance to serve media clients not only in Palestine, where he lives, but also in Israel, Europe and America.
“I tell the students I teach [at Al Quds Bard Honors College] that they need to present both narratives, Israeli and Palestinian,” said Erakat. “I have to say to myself that I am Palestinian, but here’s the Israeli narrative. Sometimes I’ll get surprised by the editor who says, ‘Hey, you’ve got too much Israeli voice in your story.’ It’s a precarious situation and there are constant clashes taking place. But Israelis are facing the same things. Both sides are in danger.”
Living in the West Bank with his wife, Noura, a high school mathematics teacher, and his three daughters, Haya, 11, Mira, 3, and Laura, 2, Erakat perceives danger almost every day. While driving the girls to school one day he encountered stone-throwing Palestinian youth and gun-toting Israeli soldiers. He had to turn around and take them home because clashes broke out.
“Before we open the door to leave the house, my babies ask me if there are soldiers or tear gas,” Erakat said.
A 45-minute drive to his office in Ramallah can take three hours because of checkpoints. Even going to the ATM can be treacherous.
“I went to the bank, saw the M-16s pointed at me and the Israeli soldiers shouted, ‘This is a closed area and you can’t be here,’” he said. “And I said, ‘But I have to go to the bank.’” With soldiers pointing their weapons at him, he nervously withdrew money and drove off.
During a recent Skype conversation with Rider journalism students, he carried his laptop camera outside as evening was falling.
“See those car lights over there?” he said. “That’s about where the separation wall between Palestine and Israel is. Israel calls it a security fence.”
His cousin had just told him not to leave home that night because “the [Israeli] army is operating nearby.”
“This area used to be very, very lively,” Erakat said. “There were restaurants, there were greengrocers. It was a very, very busy area. But with the wall, it became a ghost town.”
The wall does not follow the pre-1967 border between Israel and Palestine, but, in many places, divides Palestinians from other Palestinians.
“Area A is under complete Palestinian control,” he said. “It’s also becoming more Americanized. We have a KFC, Pizza Hut, Domino’s. We just got a Chuck E. Cheese’s and we’re getting an Arby’s. Early this year, we got a movie theater that gets the American movies right away so we don’t have to wait months to see the movies that come out.” But he says at any moment, the whole city can shut down.
“That’s how real the occupation is,” he said.
Palestinian Authority police do not control Area B, such as the village of Abu Dis, where Erakat lives.
“We have a police force, but they don’t really do anything, and they’re not even in uniform,” said Erakat. “Coordination with the Israeli authorities is necessary if our cops want to come in for a drug bust. Area C has no Palestinian control, just Israeli.”
Among recent flare-ups, two in particular demonstrate the difficulties of unbiased news reporting. In the summer, a vehicle driven by an Israeli settler struck and killed a 5-year-old Palestinian girl. This was almost unanimously described in the press as an “accident.” Not long after, a Palestinian driver killed an Israeli child. Headlines called this act “terrorism.”
Erakat believes, from eyewitness accounts, that both acts were in fact intentional.
A second example involved Palestinian bus driver Yousef Al Rimouni, who drove for the Israeli cooperative Egged. Al Rimouni was found hanged in the back of the bus he works on for a living in Israel. Palestinian eyewitnesses claimed six Israeli settlers strangled him and made it look like a suicide. Israeli police claimed Al Rimouni, a father of two whose father is Erakat’s tailor, hanged himself, a decision confirmed by an autopsy by an Israeli doctor in the presence of a Palestinian physician. Both sides had to be cautiously presented in Erakat’s new story.
Before working for The Media Line, Erakat reported from the Middle East for several news outlets, including the Dubai Business Channel, The Financial Times and Fox News, where he served as the local producer whenever longtime TV personality Geraldo Rivera came on scene.
Erakat got a reputation as a journalist who would ask difficult questions and demand answers, especially when covering Palestinians.
“Imagine going to a news conference, you ask this question and everyone looks at you because it’s a tough question and nobody asked it,” he said. “Then you’re suddenly met with these tall, big and muscle-bound guys that say, ‘You’ve been called and the [Palestinian] president needs to talk to you.’ I knew this was the question that had to be asked and there was a risk. They said, ‘Look, if you ask a difficult question again, you’re not allowed back into the president’s office.’”
Ironically, Erakat would go to work as a press officer for five years in the office of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Erakat’s fluency in English as well as Arabic helped. He eventually became foreign press secretary, handling logistics for the news crews that flooded in, answering media inquiries addressed to Abbas, and scheduling interviews with top Palestinian officials.
But journalism was his first love, and he came back to it this year. “Journalism is a bug,” he said. “There is an acting bug and a journalism bug, and this bug stays.”
He says it dates from his days at Rider, where his concentration was radio and television communication. He was also a features and entertainment editor for The Rider News.
“My experiences with The Rider News changed me. It made me want to become a journalist. Rider, with its professors and their ‘one-on-one approach,’ makes it a great program because what you learn in theory, you use practically,” he said. “I talk about it still today when I go to job opportunities — it’s there on my resume.”
Erakat was heartbroken to hear the news that his adviser, Dr. Howard Schwartz, died.
“Long after I graduated, out of the blue, I emailed him for a recommendation letter. Although it had been years since we communicated, he did not hesitate once and immediately wrote it up. I read that letter after his death and cried my eyes out,” Erakat emailed after speaking to Rider students.
“I am sure that I would not be where I am today and going further had it not been for Dr. Schwartz and for my professors at Rider University — you know who you are,” he added.
Not that journalism is his only bug. On the side, he has written 13 screenplays. One of them has been filmed, and one is in pre-production.
“If you need to write, you need to constantly write, even if it’s for five minutes at a time,” he said.
The day Rider students spoke with him, he had several projects on his plate — including two articles for The Media Line and a midterm exam he had to create for the History of Film I course he’s teaching. But he still found time to write a synopsis for a screenplay he’s working on, talk to Rider students and play Legos with his daughters Mira and Laura.
“There’s so much inspiration in Mideast stories,” he said. “I have conversations with established writers in Hollywood and London, and they’re jealous of me!”
But it is his day job, he realizes, that is the important one, not only because “it puts food on the table,” but because “it’s an obligation to send the right message to the outside world of what’s really happening on the ground in the Israeli and Palestinian territories.”
Many, including Erakat, believe that if Israel and Palestine agree to a two-state solution, there will finally be peace. The problem, though, lies with the stubbornness of the two parties and the disdain they have for one another.
“It’s hard to live and work here during these conflicts,” he said. “Right now, we are witnessing a cycle of violence between Palestine and Israel, as well as between Hamas and Fatah.
“Right now, the two largest Palestinian parties are not talking, and when there’s a lack of communication, there’s going to be conflict,” he said. “They’re using the media and making accusations at each other, but no one is talking face to face, and if this continues, there will be no end to the Palestinian-Palestinian fighting or the Israeli-Palestinian fighting.”
Additional reporting by Adam Campione, Will Gallagher, Melanie Gamache, Steve Sica and Alex Zdatny.